Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Election Warriors:Three Men And A Vote, Lalu, Nitish, Modi

By M H AhssanKajol Singh

The 2014 Lok Sabha election will be Bihar’s first in a quarter century to be fought triangularly by three heavyweight parties. The battle will be a direct contest between three powerful politicians of national renown: Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the de facto commandant of the Janata Dal (United); BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi; and the veteran Lalu Prasad Yadav, the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who singlehandedly altered Bihar’s political landscape in the 1990s by politically empowering the backward castes.
Which way does the wind blow now? Will Modi sweep all opposition to dust? Will Kumar ride home on an elephant of development? Or will Yadav make a smashing comeback? 


Lalu Prasad Yadav : The Avenger, or Maybe Not
  • Claim to fame The original social engineer
  • Current status Domiciled in doghouse
  • Aspirations To be back with a bang
  • Chances Too many ifs and buts
Lalu Yadav is ecstatic. Lalu Yadav is panic-stricken. He sees the sun rise — finally! — after a long, dark night. He fears sunlight may never again shine on him. Confused? You would be, too, if you could smell the paint on the finish line, yet wonder if that’s only a desert mirage. Everything in Bihar’s current politics tells Lalu Yadav he will hit the jackpot in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, perhaps doing better than the 22 of Bihar’s 40 seats he won in 2004, a record victory that had made him a kingmaker at the Centre. But everything in today’s Bihar also tells him he is now a shadow of his past bombastic, larger-than-life self, a has-been whose magic spell is broken, perhaps forever.

Fall From Grace
Lalu Yadav ruled Bihar virtually unchallenged for 15 years from 1990, when he became the chief minister for the first time. After he was arrested in 1997 for alleged embezzlement, he made his wife the chief minister and ruled de facto. Yadav’s opponents — the Congress, whose state government he had routed in 1990, the BJP, and his former socialist comrades — failed in repeated efforts to dislodge him.

Until 2005. After a vote that year threw up a hung Assembly, another state election was called in 10 months. This time, Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was summarily booted out. His one-time lieutenant, Nitish Kumar, whose Janata Dal (United) won in a coalition with the BJP, became chief minister. For Yadav, it got worse hereon.

In 2009, the RJD massively lost the Lok Sabha battle, going down to four seats from 22. Yadav himself lost one of the two seats he contested. Three years later, the party clocked its worst defeat in the Assembly election, falling to 22 seats from the 54 of Bihar’s 243 seats it had won in 2005. Next year’s Lok Sabha election would be Yadav’s first in nearly a quarter century when he is in power neither at the Centre nor in the state.

The Bright Side
Yadav’s chances to revive his political career looked up in June when the BJP and the JD(U) ended their 17-year alliance. That coalition had won 32 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2009 by combining upper-caste votes, who are 12 percent of Bihar’s 82 million people and traditionally the BJP’s bulwark, plus sections of the backward castes and the worst off among the Dalits, who together are more than a third of the state’s electorate.

But now that the 2014 joust looks every bit a triangular contest, Yadav believes the RJD is spectacularly placed to best the BJP and the JD(U). In their most recent face-off — the 2010 Assembly election — the JD(U) got 22 percent of the total votes cast to win 115 of the 140-odd seats it had contested. The BJP got 17 percent vote share to win 91 of the 101 seats it fought on. Together, the alliance scored 39 percent, a formidable performance.

But the RJD was no pushover. It got 19.5 percent votes, barely three percent behind the JD(U) and ahead of the BJP — although over a higher number of seats. Yadav thinks the BJP and the JD(U) would be easy prey fighting singly. In 2009, the RJD was placed second on as many as 19 Lok Sabha seats, losing six of them by less than 30,000 votes. Two others were lost by 30,000-50,000 votes.

The JD(U), goes the reasoning in Yadav’s camp, would totter without the upper-caste votes of the Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas and the trader caste of the Vaishyas, who are counted among the backwards in Bihar but back the BJP. And the BJP would be similarly disadvantaged by the loss of the backward, Dalit and some Muslim votes that Kumar, himself a backward, had brought to the alliance.

On the other hand, after the BJP-JD(U) split, Yadav expects his caste brethren, the Yadavs, who are 11 percent of Bihar’s voters, to flock in ever higher numbers to the RJD. He expects the same from the state’s 17 percent Muslims, a section of whom earlier voted for the BJP-JD(U) because Kumar promised and delivered a largely secular administration. As for the upper castes, the RJD spin points to the fact that three of its Lok Sabha MPs besides Yadav are Rajputs. Yadav plans on fielding a number of upper-caste folks as candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Taking no chances still, Yadav has been publicly apologising for his strident anti-upper caste politicking over the past four decades, which worsened inter-caste relations in Bihar and fuelled caste wars.

And The Rough
But then, there’s the other side. Yadav emerged as a giant on Bihar’s political firmament in 1990 by stringing together a political alliance of backward castes and the Dalits that ousted the upper castes from their decades’ old leadership of the state’s politics. Raising a slogan of MY — Muslims and Yadavs — he exhorted his supporters to literally wipe out the upper castes with the slogan “Bhura baal saaf karo”, bhura baal being an acronym for Bhumihars, Rajputs, Brahmins and Lalas (Kayasthas).

But by creating sub-categories among the backwards and the Dalits, Kumar may well have stolen Yadav’s place as the natural leader of all non-upper castes. In the first, Kumar excluded the Yadavs (and sundry others) as a sort of creamy layer, playing Santa Claus for the rest. These “extremely” backward castes (EBCS) account for 40 percent of all votes. In the second, of Bihar’s 22 Dalit sub-castes, Kumar categorised 21 as “maha” Dalits leaving out the dominant Dalit sub-caste of Paswan to marginalise Rajya Sabha MP Ram Vilas Paswan, who once had substantial political muscle but has been in the dungeon since losing in successive elections.

Moreover, no one in Bihar thinks that Yadav may actually provide good governance. The memory of Yadav’s 15-year misrule that spawned massive crime, lawlessness and corruption still makes people apoplectic. Besides, most backwards are still sore because, during his rule, the RJD leader empowered only his brethren, the Yadavs, providing them with the bulk of government contracts while ignoring all others.

Most ominous is the 1997 criminal case against him pertaining to the embezzlement of Rs 950 crore from government funds for livestock fodder. If the judge, who is scheduled to rule this month, finds him guilty, Yadav’s career may be over for years altogether. His wife, Rabri Devi, is already discredited politically, having lost both Assembly seats she fought in 2010. Two of their older sons have proved to be non-starters.

His only hope may lie in Misa, their eldest daughter, a stay-at-home mom now being seen at RJD rallies. But voters know nothing of her and nine months may be too short a time for her to deliver politically. And Yadav can’t imagine handing the party to a non-family politician.


Narendra Modi : Pied Piper, But Leading Where?
  • Claim to fame Hindu nationalist icon of development
  • Current status: Putative prime minister
  • Aspirations: To be prime minister
  • Chances: Charisma versus Castes
The frenzy among BJP supporters in Bihar is unmistakable. It cuts across the urban-rural divide, the age divide, the gender divide, and every other divide. Now that Modi is here, they exclaim, the BJP will sweep most of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. BJP’s Nand Kishore Yadav, the Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, told INN he reckons the party would be in the play in at least 15 seats. That is ambitious, given that the most the BJP has ever won is 12 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar — in partnership with the JD(U) in 2009 and with its previous avatar, the Samata Party, in 1999 (excluding the 14 seats that went to Jharkhand when that state was carved out of Bihar in 2000). Can Modi singlehandedly win Bihar for the BJP without the crutch of the JD(U)?

Patchy Past
It all depends on how big a leader Modi proves to be. Is he bigger than Lal Krishna Advani was in 1991? In the Lok Sabha election that summer, the BJP drew a blank in Bihar’s 40 seats. (Of Bihar’s 14 other seats that later went to Jharkhand, the BJP had won five.) This, despite the fact that BJP had roused massive public support, especially in Bihar, in the previous two years for its controversial campaign to build a temple in place of a mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, and that the then chief minister Yadav’s government had arrested Advani as he passed through Bihar while on a rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya to drum up support for the temple.

In successive state and Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s performance was at best lukewarm and at worst rather poor. Ironically, the BJP’s best-ever performance in the Assembly elections came in February 2005 when it fought by itself and yet raced to the top of the table, winning a whopping 114 of the state’s 243 seats, ahead of both the RJD, which secured a poor 75, and the JD(U), which won only 55.

But the BJP’s failure to pull even eight MLAs from other parties — because most others were ideologically anti-BJP — to form the government pushed it back into the arms of the JD(U). In the second Assembly polls of 2005, the BJP’s seats came down to 55 because it contested fewer slots. That number went up to 91 in 2010.

Reason To Hope
BJP insiders in Patna believe they can repeat the magic of the February 2005 Assembly election at next year’s Lok Sabha election. Add to that Modi’s leadership, a mood of anti-incumbency against the Congress-led Central government, the marginalisation of the RJD, and anger with Kumar’s government over unfulfilled promises — such as raising salaries of contracted school teachers to the levels of the permanent staff — the BJP thinks it has a jolly good case to convince the voters.

Indeed, the state’s top BJP leaders claim credit for the achievements of their erstwhile ruling coalition with the JD(U), such as in building roads and improving the state’s finances, saying those departments were run by BJP ministers. On the other hand, they say, the JD(U) ministers were responsible for the mismanagement of flood as well as drought-hit regions or in the running of mid-day meal schemes in schools where poisoned food killed poor students.

Of the claim that the JD(U) would walk away with the votes of the backwards and the maha Dalits given Kumar’s munificence for them, BJP leaders are quick to point out that their party had had more EBC and maha Dalit ministers than the JD(U) did. The BJP parades its commitment to the backwards by giving a shout out to Nand Kishore Yadav, a prominent Yadav leader in the BJP, and Sushil Kumar Modi, who was deputy CM and finance minister in the coalition government and is a backward caste leader. In addition, the BJP is putting ebc and Dalit cadres in charge of most of the party’s 56,000 “booth” committees — which keep track of voters in their area and marshal them on election day — where these communities have sizable presence.

Of course, the biggest excitement in the BJP is over Modi’s emergence as the party’s national campaign head. Apart from projecting him as a backward caste leader, the BJP in Bihar is also playing up Modi’s Hindutva credentials unabashedly. A string of meetings are planned, beginning with a massive rally at Patna in October. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the party’s ideological parent, has pressed all its local units — shakhas — into rallying supporters to join the meetings. Hundreds of village and town hall meetings are planned to bring Modi’s message to the voters. To woo the maha Dalits, the RSS-BJP have organised mass feasts for them across the state.

Shaky Still
But, of course, there is always many a proverbial slip between the cup and the lip. Half of the 12 Lok Sabha seats the BJP won in 2009 gave it a margin of victory of less than 50,000 votes, including less than 10,000 on one seat. That could spin dangerously in a three-cornered contest. Three others were won by margins of 50,000-80,000, including the party’s Muslim poster boy, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain’s win from Bhagalpur. In any case, the nationally recognised BJP leaders from Bihar, such as Hussain, CP Thakur, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Shatrughan Sinha, are actually political lightweights in the state, having less sway than most state-level leaders.

And most state leaders themselves are of any reckoning only in and around Patna. Nand Kishore Yadav represents an Assembly seat in Patna, as does the party’s chief whip in the Assembly, Arun Sinha. Sushil Kumar Modi, a member of the indirectly elected legislative council, the Upper House of Bihar’s bicameral legislature, is dismissed by party insiders as a creature of Patna. Moreover, even state BJP leaders concede it won’t be easy to make substantial inroads into the backwards and Dalit votes without heavyweight leaders from those castes at the top. Two of the BJP’s foremost state leaders are Giriraj Singh and Ashwani Chaubey, both aggressive groupies of Narendra Modi, and both of whom are upper castes. Prem Kumar, an EBC leader who was a minister earlier, is angry because he lost out to Nand Kishore Yadav in the race to be the Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly.

Will Modi’s charisma override caste loyalties that have traditionally reflected greater clout than Hindutva in Bihar’s elections? Both the BJP and its rivals seek an answer to that question, which will only begin to be answered after Narendra Modi’s arrival in October.


Nitish Kumar: The Dark Knight or the Joker?
  • Claim to fame: Good governance
  • Current status: Newly-minted secularism champion
  • Aspirations: Won’t say but wants to be PM
  • Chances: Development versus castes
Pavan Varma, former Indian Foreign Service officer and author, recalls asking Kumar last year what he thought of Modi’s chances to become the prime minister. Varma says he got a half-hour “tutorial” on the realities of India, its composite culture, national consensus, the need to carry people along, building and sustaining coalitions, and team spirit. Kumar’s supporters dismiss the charge that his rejection of Modi on grounds of the latter’s anti-Muslim sectarian image is political opportunism. They insist Kumar always kept the BJP in Bihar on a tight leash in their seven-plus years of running a coalition government, earning him the trust of Bihar’s Muslims. Yes, the split with the BJP has made the path to a win in 2014 a tad uncertain. Yet, Kumar is confident that the people of Bihar know his government’s worth and will vote for the JD(U).

The Protean Pragmatist
Kumar has been variously described as cautious, reclusive, non-confrontational and, of course, opportunist. His detractors have called him two-faced and diabolical, alleging that he says things to please in the moment but rarely means it. In 1994, when he broke away from Lalu Yadav’s Janata Dal in Bihar, he continued to play second fiddle to fellow former socialists, George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav among others, who too had broken away to form a rival camp named Samata Party. It was only in 2005, after Fernandes was eclipsed by a defeat of the BJP-led central coalition in 2004 and when Sharad Yadav himself lost the Lok Sabha poll, that Kumar emerged into his own.

And since then, it has virtually been a dream run for him. He has won two Assembly elections back-to-back, the second more spectacularly than the first, and returned for his JD(U) superb results in the 2009 Lok Sabha election on the back of his performance in the state. Now that he has broken from the BJP, good governance is the only card he has to play as the caste combinations are hardly in his favour.

Read That Scorecard
Kumar has been a man in a hurry since becoming chief minister in November 2005. He targeted four constituencies: the EBCs, who alone form 35 percent of the state’s electorate; the maha Dalits; the poorest among the Muslims, known as “pasmanda musalman”; and women. He fired off his first term by reserving 50 percent seats in all panchayats for women, more than the constitutionally mandated one-third. His inducements for the backwards and the Dalits have included financial largesse such as scholarships and hostels, especially for their girls who were also given uniforms and bicycles to ride to school; building boundary walls for Muslim graveyards to protect them; and giving freebies such as radio transistors.

But more than such handouts, Kumar is basing his hopes to be victorious in 2014 on a widespread feeling of political empowerment his government has triggered by officially creating the special categories of the EBCs and maha Dalits. In addition, Kumar hopes that an image of a crime fighter, part true but also part pumped up by a pliant news media in the state, affords him a special place with the state’s electorate that had been fed up with the lawless rule of Lalu Yadav. Also, JD(U) leaders point out, they have the most Yadav MLAs, more than even the RJD.

Steep Uphill Climb
But that’s about all the chief minister can hope for. Since splitting from the BJP in June, Kumar and his JD(U) have ended up with the weakest caste coalition among the three front-ranking parties. And that, as JD(U) spokesman Rajiv Ranjan admitted in a conversation with INN, makes it extremely vulnerable to a dip in electoral fortunes. As noted earlier, the JD(U) is unlikely to gain many upper-caste votes, especially since he has come out openly against Modi, a Hindutva icon.

The fact that Kumar’s own caste, the Kurmis, are a tiny 2.5 percent of the state’s electorate, and hence are politically insignificant, also doesn’t bode well for him. The other prominent backward caste group, the Koeris, who are around 4 percent, may be unsure too as one of their leaders, Rajya Sabha MP Upendra Kushwaha, quit the JD(U) in a huff earlier this year, miffed at being sidelined by the chief minister.

This is not just some cold caste calculation. As a senior BJP leader told INN in Patna, the JD(U) should worry because it does not have the support of any of the “aggressive” castes. These include the Bhumihars and the Rajputs among the upper castes, the Yadavs among the backwards, and the Paswans among the Dalits. Why is the support of at least one of them important? Because they chaperone the EBCs, the maha Dalits and others at the lower social spectrum to the voting booths. Conversely, the disadvantaged risk violence if they choose to vote against the wishes of these aggressive castes.

Worse still, the JD(U) has never been a cadre-rich party, unlike the BJP and the RJD. Indeed, the joke in Patna has been that in the BJP-JD(U) alliance, the BJP provided the cadre and Kumar’s party supplied the leaders. And this is actually true — many BJP MLAs in Bihar were “loaned” by the JD(U) to the BJP. Several of them are relatives of JD(U) leaders.

And lastly, as Pavan Varma admits, some voters may turn up disappointed as expectations from a government are “bound to outstrip” what it delivers. And lately, Nitish Kumar has had a tough run of luck with schoolteachers up in arms and children dying from mid-day meals at government schools.